Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Great Steampunk War

The Atlantic is running a great series on World War One in pictures. One of the fascinating things you see in these pictures is the fascinating mix of old and new technology.

For instance, these American soldiers are using an acoustic locator to find faraway aircraft. The horns collect faint sounds, like the sound of an airplane engine. An operator listens on a headset, moving the direction of the apparatus. The distant sounds become louder when the sound receivers are more directly pointed at the source of the noise, and so by moving the apparatus until the sound it as its loudest the operator can locate the source of the noise. This represented the best technology for locating too-far-to-see aircraft up until the invention of radar during World War II.

The military use of radio was in its infancy during the war. Here two members of a German communications squad power a radio transmitter by pedaling a tandem bicycle generator.

Airplane cockpits were still open, causing aviators to struggle against wind as well as cold. This German pilot is wearing a mask and heated suit.

Poison gas is one of the most famous evils of the war. The horror of it was such that it was banned by international convention after the war and has not been used in major wars between great powers since. Here, German storm troops move through a cloud of poison gas.

Bicycle troops were expected to be a key means of exploiting modern technology to cover distance quickly, though they ended up being of limited use once static warfare set in. These are Belgian bicycle troops at the beginning of the war.

Airplanes were increasingly used for observation, but it was difficult to get real-time communication from them. Radios were bulky for the small, light airplanes of the time. As a result artillery observation (which required immediate observation and feedback to the gunners) was often carried out via static balloons such as this one. They were tethered with cables that allowed them to be raised and lowered. One or more observers would get into the gondola and then use a field telephone (also wired) to call down observations. Stationary balloons, however, made a great target for airplanes, and one of the precursors for a major attack was often to shoot down all the enemy observation balloons, thus reducing their ability to spot troop movements and call in artillery direction. In this photo you can see a motorcycle soldier in the foreground, and an observation balloon behind.

Machine guns did horrible execution during the war (though it was artillery which truly ruled the battlefields). During the latter half of the war light machine guns became more common -- not light in an objective since, as they still weighted fifteen to thirty pounds, but light in the sense that they could be carried on the move by one man. However, the primary workhorse remained the tripod-mounted, water-cooled .30 machine gun. These could weigh upwards of a hundred pounds and thus there was the problem of how to move them around. The mixture of solutions underlines the strange mix of old and modern which characterizes the period:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No One In the Driver's Seat

This piece on the possible linguistics of "driverless cars" (a term which, if the technology catches on, would obviously be no more current than "horseless carriage" is now) got me thinking a bit: I think it's quite possible that it will one day be more safe to be driven around by a computer controlled car than to drive yourself. However, accidents will continue to happen. Which opens the question: How will people respond to the balance of risk versus control?

The latest Google-car prototype doesn't just control a car, it actually does not have control features that would allow a human to take control. Perhaps because I've grown up driving and being driven, I might go for this as a novelty, but I think it would actually bother me a lot as my primary vehicle. Even if I knew that a computer was more able to deal with emergencies than me, I would still not feel comfortable knowing that in the event of an emergency I could not seize control.

I wonder how society as a whole will deal with this. Will human-driven vehicle some day be banned from public roads as being far less safe than computer-driven ones? Will we ever feel comfortable with the idea that in the event of an accident, our last moments might be spent seeing the computer about the crash but unable to do anything about it?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Orphan Openings: The Next Generation

This selection courtesy of Eleanor's summer scribblings:
...and Eleanor found out that if you sit sideways on the living room couch and eat sunflower seeds, you could toss the shells backward onto the radiator. Of course, you had to account for the sunflower seed shells on the floor and in the toy bins, but otherwise, it was a pretty good system, especially if you had a book to read.

Narratives of War

Phil Klay, himself a former marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had an interesting piece in the weekend's WSJ about the cultural narratives about different wars and the way they dis-serve the actual experiences of veterans:
I suppose it is the lot of soldiers and Marines to be objectified according to the politics of the day and the mood of the American people about their war. I know a veteran of World War II who hates the idea of the Greatest Generation. "War ruined my life," he told me. "I couldn't date girls after the war. I couldn't go with people. I was a loner… It took years after the war for me to realize that the Earth is beautiful, not always ugly. Because I had so many friends killed in front of me, on the side of me, and how they missed me, I have no idea."

Vietnam veterans—who, like World War II veterans, were a mix of volunteers and draftees and probably expected, at least at the beginning of the war, a similar beatification—had the opposite problem. In "Recovering From the War," Patience H.C. Mason relates her husband's story: "Bob, who never fired a gun in Vietnam…who saved hundreds of lives by going in for wounded when it was too hot for the medevacs…got off the plane to buy some magazines in Hawaii. The clerk smiled at him and asked if he was coming back from Vietnam. He smiled back and nodded. 'Murderer!' she said."

Compared with that kind of reception, the earnest pity that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans often receive is awkward to complain about. It can sometimes even work to our advantage. When a friend of mine went apartment-hunting recently, he had a potential landlord cry and call him a "poor soul" because of his service. "I went along with it," he said sheepishly. He didn't want to blow his chances on the application.
The theologian Jonathan Edwards didn't consider pity an expression of "true virtue." Pity addresses the perceived suffering, not the whole individual. "Men may pity others under exquisite torment," Edwards wrote, "when yet they would have been grieved if they had seen their prosperity."

Pity sidesteps complexity in favor of narratives that we're comfortable with, reducing the nuances of a person's experience to a sound bite. Thus the response of a New York partygoer who—after a friend explained that the proudest moment of his deployment to Iraq came when his soldiers were fired on and decided not to fire back—replied, "That must make the nightmares even worse."
Klay points out that not only is the experience of all soldiers in a given war not the same, even the experiences of one soldier are not all the same. Life is not easily fit into a one sentence theme summary. He apparently has a book of short stories out, most of them taking place in the military, which I'd be curious to take a look at some time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love versus Sentimentality

Fr. James Martin has a piece in America Magazine entitled "Simply Loving" where he outlines what he believes to be the correct Catholic response to the issues presented by same sex relationships and same sex marriage.
Everybody knows that same-sex marriage and homosexual acts are contrary to Catholic moral teaching. Yet that same teaching also says that gay and lesbian people must be treated with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.” As more states pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage, more gay and lesbian Catholics are entering into these unions. This leaves some Catholics feeling caught between two values: church teaching against same-sex marriage and church teaching in favor of compassion....

Most people who oppose same-sex marriage say they do not hate gay people, only that the traditional understanding of marriage is important and perpetually valid. Other opponents of same-sex marriage invoke the oft-repeated mantra, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” If that is so, then why do so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church?

Let me suggest a reason beyond the fact that many gays and lesbians disagree with church teaching on homosexual acts: only rarely do opponents of same-sex marriage say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin. The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics—but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.
Of course, part of the issue here is that gay and lesbian are terms that culturally are closely associated with practice as well as inclination. This may or may not be right. I've read some faithful Catholics who are attracted to members of the same sex make the case for openly using their orientation as an identity, and others make the contrary case. But either way, I think what's Fr. Martin's illustration fails to recognize is that while there is a cultural assumption that married people are against adultery (and that adultery is a violation of social expectation), when someone identifies as gay there is a cultural assumption that that person is looking to engage in sexual relationships with members of the same sex.

That said, it seems to me that the suggestion Fr. Martin makes in jest is not actually all that far from the kind of preaching one would have heard through much of the Church's history, and returning to that would not necessarily be a bad idea.

Fr. Martin tries to draw a lesson from the story of Zacchaeus on how the Church should deal with the call to conversion versus simply embracing someone:
The story of Zacchaeus illustrates an important difference between the ministry of John the Baptist and of Jesus. For John the Baptist, conversion came first, then communion. First you repent of your sins; then you are welcomed into the community. For Jesus, the opposite was more often the case; first, Jesus welcomed the person, and conversion followed. It’s not loving the sinner; it’s simply loving.
I think his illustration with Zacchaeus misses the point a bit. We repeatedly see Jesus encounter people with the assumption that the encounter will make a turning point in their lives. The calling of the disciples is a key example of this. Jesus just comes up to them and tells them to follow Him. He doesn't lay out, "This is the way that I expect my followers to live, and this is why. Now, what do you think? Do you want to take on this lifestyle?" No, Jesus just approaches people with the assumption that they will change their lives as a result. I think that's arguably what we see with Zacchaeus and the other examples of Jesus going after the "lost sheep of Israel". Jesus doesn't just meet people where they are and encourage them to feel good about themselves just the way they are, He meets people where they are and tells them to follow him. Not just in a wear as WWJD and go to church every so often kind of way, but in a drop everything and leave your home town kind of way.

However, this doesn't mean that Jesus didn't demand change of people. For an example that ends differently from that of Zacchaeus, it's interesting to consider the rich young man:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’”

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
I think we tend to gloss over this story because the young man is the ultimate "other" -- he's rich. Thus, he tends to be seen as beyond the realm of sympathy. But think for a second what happens here. The young man comes to Jesus and asks how he can be saved. Jesus gives him a standard answer, but the young man asks what more he can. Then "Jesus, looking at him, loved him", and immediately asks him to do something very hard: give up the things which make him happy and follow Jesus instead. So yes, Jesus to use Fr. Martin's phrase "simply loves" the young man -- but then he immediately asks him to do something very hard. And when the young man doesn't, Jesus doesn't say, "Look, it's okay. Live with us in communion for a while, and maybe it'll get easier and you'll feel like you can give up your possessions bit by bit." He watches him walk away and then turns to his disciples and uses him as an example of how people like him are unlikely to be saved.

This is the same Jesus who meets Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is also a rich man -- though we tend to overlook that a bit since he's presented as an outcast -- and I think it's worth thinking: If Zacchaeus had not experienced a conversion would Jesus have acted any differently towards him than towards the rich young man?

It's in his closing that I think Fr. Martin goes most badly off the rails:
What might it mean for the church to love gays and lesbians more deeply? First, it would mean listening to their experiences—all their experiences, what their lives are like as a whole. Second, it would mean valuing their contributions to the church. Where would our church be without gays and lesbians—as music ministers, pastoral ministers, teachers, clergy and religious, hospital chaplains and directors of religious education? Infinitely poorer. Finally, it would mean publicly acknowledging their individual contributions: that is, saying that a particular gay Catholic has made a difference in our parish, our school, our diocese. This would help remind people that they are an important part of the body of Christ. Love means listening and respecting, but before that it means admitting that the person exists.
First off, I think it's a mistake to see the Church as "infinitely poorer" for the lack of some group. This applies to anyone. The Church would not be infinitely poorer if I left it. I would be infinitely poorer for not being a member of the Body of Christ, but the Church itself would still be the Church.

This also shows a dangerous tendency to identify people as symbols of their group rather than persons, which would be disturbing even were the group he's talking about not identified primarily by affinity to a mortal sin. To the extent that it's accurate to say that the Church is poorer for the lack of someone, it's in that each person is meant to repose in Christ. Thus, a person who is excluded (or excludes himself) from the Church is a loss in that his soul is meant to be one with Christ. He's not a loss because he's a totemic member of a group which we condescendingly feel the need to hug particularly close.

An excessive eagerness to love the category actually ends up extinguishing the person.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If Loving Father is Wrong, They Don't Want To Be Right

I'd attributed it to Francis Fever that it is at times hard to tell a news story about the pope is real, or an Eye of the Tiber piece which accidentally got picked up by the mainstream press. In this case, satire is tamer than reality. Eye of the Tiber runs with the headline, Women In Love With Married Men Appeal To Pope To Make Fidelity Optional, however the reality it is sending up is arguably more outrageous: 'Dear Francis, we are each in love with a priest, please let us marry': Italian priests' mistresses in extraordinary plea to Pope to end celibacy for Catholic clergy
Twenty-six Italian women who claim to be having affairs with a priest have written to Pope Francis begging him to lift the Catholic clergy's vow of celibacy.

In an extraordinary letter addressed to His Holiness, the unnamed women say they are just a 'small sample' of believers being forced to 'live in silence' because of their relationship.

The letter starts: 'Dear Pope Francis, we are a group of women from all over Italy (and further afield) and are writing to you to break down the wall of silence and indifference that we are faced with every day.

'Each of us is in, was or would like to start a relationship with a priest we are in love with.'

The 26 women signed with just their name and the initial letter of their surname, plus the name of their hometown, but they did write their surnames and telephone numbers on the envelope.

'As you are well aware,' the letter reads, 'a lot has been said by those who are in favour of optional celibacy but very little is known about the devastating suffering of a woman who is deeply in love with a priest.

'We humbly place our suffering at your feet in the hope that something may change, not just for us, but for the good of the entire Church.'
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has had a seemingly unique ability to inspire the imaginations of people who arguably do not in fact like him very much. Once in a while these erstwhile fans even realize this. I was going to chalk this up to yet another insane case of thinking that with a new face in the Vatican, everything is up for grabs. (To be clear, the discipline of priestly celibacy could in fact be changed in the West. In the Eastern churches, married men are ordained to the priesthood. However, what few people realize is that this does not mean that "priests can marry" but rather that married men can become priests. If a married priest's wife leaves him or his wife dies, he is required to remain celibate from there on out.)

However, when I went to look up the article to post on it the first response which Google gave me was not what I expected, but rather this article from 2010:
Dozens of Italian women who have had relationships with Roman Catholic priests or lay monks have endorsed an open letter to the pope that calls for the abolition of the celibacy rule. The letter, thought by one signatory to be unprecedented, argues that a priest "needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved".

It also pleads for understanding of those who "live out in secrecy those few moments the priest manages to grant [us] and experience on a daily basis the doubts, fears and insecurities of our men".

The issue was put back on the Vatican's agenda in March when one of Pope Benedict's senior advisers, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, said the abolition of the celibacy rule might curb sex abuse by priests, a suggestion he hastily withdrew after Benedict spoke up for "the principle of holy celibacy".

The authors of the letter said they decided to come into the open after hearing his retort, which they said was an affirmation of "the holiness of something that is not holy" but a man-made rule. There are many instances of married priests in the early centuries of Christianity. Today, priests who follow the eastern Catholic rites can be married, as can those who married before converting to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism.

One signatory, Stefania Salomone, 42, an office manager, said the message to the pope had been endorsed by nearly 40 women registered with an online forum linked to Il Dialogo website. But such was the sensitivity of the issue that only three had published their names.
Perhaps it's just that in May, mistresses thoughts turn to priests.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Summer School

Summer is approaching, and it's time to improve your mind outside the grind of the academic year. Let these fine scholars guide you through your extracurricular reading:

Literacy-chic has been meditating on Notable Moments in Tolkien.

Brandon is going to be reading through the Platonic dialogues over the summer, and starts things off with some thoughts on various methods of grouping them.

Sarah Emsley is hosting a half-year series on Manfield Park in honor of the 200th anniversary of its publication. The first two posts are already up.

Little Knife Fight on the Prairie

A friend had linked to this Slate piece which reproduces a part of one of Rose Wilder Lane's letters to her mother, containing Rose's feedback on the first draft of On The Shores of Silver Lake. Rose was an experienced newspaper writer and author of popular books (both under her own name and ghostwritten) and guided her mother through the process of writing the much more enduring Little House books. It remains a source of some dispute among specialists how much of the final result was Laura's and how much was Rose's. To me, the interesting thing about the letter is that it shows both Rose's good editing instincts, and her strong affinity for cultural assumptions and tropes. The former undoubtedly helped the books, but it seems to me that Laura's more individual and experience-based voice overcame the latter to an extent and was thus responsible for making the books the classics which they remain.

In a section which highlights Rose's editing instincts, she advises:
I still think that the place to begin is the house on Plum Creek. There are four years to skip if Laura is twelve; she was 8 in Plum Creek when she started school. Therefore the more nearly you can tie the two books together the better, and the house on Plum Creek will do that.

You must take into account the actual distinction between truth and fact. It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts. Your whole lifetime spent at nothing else would not tell all the facts of one morning in your life, just any ordinary morning when you get up, dress, get breakfast and wash the dishes. Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts to illustrate it. All your travels to Burr Oak and back can be skipped because they do not mean anything except elapsed time. Essentially the family is the same except that time has passed. It is not a fact, but it is perfectly true to take them west from the house on Plum Creek, where everything that has happened during this time might as truthfully have occurred as where it did occur.

But then you also have glimpses of fascinating material which Rose didn't feel fit the expectations of readers:
You have a brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out. A 12-year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he's her cousin. Or if she's shy or doesn't like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention. Here you have a young girl, just 12 years old, who's led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you can not have her suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight. Maybe you did, but you can not do it in fiction; you can not make it credible in under ten or twelve thousand words, and if you do make it credible it's not a child's book. I remember when I was five year old or so, and Mrs. Boast let those hoodlums take me home, I ran away from a hulking big brute who tried to kiss me, and his motive was pure sex sadism which I recognized well enough without knowing at all what it was. I suppose something of that kind was in this incident. But it is not child's book stuff. We'll just have to manufacture another kind of cousin, that's all. Seems to me the normal thing would be to have both Louisa and Charley now so much older that they pay little attention to 12-year-olds. Laura just sees them, as she did in the Big Woods.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Not All Feminists

It is a peculiar focus of what attempts to pass for intellectual discourse in some quarters that what would otherwise be considered school yard jokes are treated as if they were some kind of important social commentary. Such a case, it would seem, is the "not all men" meme.

Kelsey McKinney takes to the pages of Vox to explain to us the important cultural critique embodied in an internet meme called "not all men". She sets out to get out attention with this opening:
1) What is a man?
Might as well start here. A man is a adult male of the species homo sapiens. To clarify, "adult" here does not mean someone who's able to pay their own rent, or treat others with respect. Adult simply means that this male has gone through puberty and is no longer a boy.

Some additional notes about men:

A man is someone who pays his female employees less.
A man is someone who interrupts a woman when she's in the middle of saying something.
A man expects his wife to do all the cooking and cleaning.

What's that you say? Not ALL men pay their employees less? Not ALL men interrupt women?

Thanks for pointing that out. You're who this meme is about.
What is so bad about seeking to qualify a generalization? She is ready to explain to us:
When a man (though, of course, not all men) butts into a conversation about a feminist issue to remind the speaker that "not all men" do something, they derail what could be a productive conversation. Instead of contributing to the dialogue, they become the center of it, excluding themselves from any responsibility or blame.

"Men who just insist on you having that little qualifier because it undermines your argument and recenters their feelings as the central part of the dialogue," Hudson says.

On a very basic level, "not all men" is an interruption, and interrupting is rude. More to the point, it's rude in a very gendered way.
[P]ointing out individual exceptions doesn't help us understand or combat behaviors that really are mainly committed by men, from small things like interruptions up to domestic violence and rape. Not all men beat their partners, but people who beat their partners are mostly men. Pointing out that you're not one of them doesn't help us figure out how to understand and deal with that problem.
I'm sure that now you understand the problem.

There you are, explaining how we could simplify airport screening procedures by using racial profiling, and suddenly-

Not all Arabs!

Or you and your friends are just making some really good progress on figuring out the racial origins of our society's crime and unemployment problems when-

Not all Blacks!

Then you think you can at least have a conversation about how women with a massive sense self importance and entitlement end up shifting everything into gender war terms when-

Not all Feminists!

It's almost like you can't sit around making generalizations about groups you don't like without someone showing up to introduce a qualifier? If reasoned discourse doesn't exist in order for us to draw massive negative generalizations about groups of people we don't like, what exactly is it for?

I'm sure that by now you are just wondering what you can do to help alleviate the suffering of all these poor feminists who can't make their generalizations in peace anymore. Well, McKinney is ready to tell you how you can help:
You can not interrupt, because interrupting is rude, and use that time instead to think about whether or not injecting "not all men" is going to derail a productive conversation.

You can also try making a "Not all men" joke with your favorite pop cultural shows.
So there you have it. That is the important work that feminists do today. I hope you have learned your lesson and will have more respect for these intellectual endeavors in the future.

Oh, wait- Are you interrupting? What's that? Not all feminists? How rude. We were busy having a productive conversation about people like you. Have the decency to be quiet.

Four Questions on Writing


Betty Duffy tagged us in this meme last week (her answers part 1 and part 2), but I didn't have the gall to answer it until I'd finally turned out some writing. Now that I've posted an installment of Stillwater -- only four months after the previous one! -- I feel like I can procrastinate with confidence once again.

1. What are you working on?

Stillwater, a novel that started as a National Novel Writing Month project in November 2012. It's a modern reworking of an under-appreciated classic, which source I've not revealed yet because the goal of the project was to see if this story, the most critically maligned offspring of its author, had enough universal appeal to transcend the cultural trappings of its original setting. To that end, I've changed the location and set it in the present, but I've tried to remain true to the essentials of the plot and to the characters as the original author presented them, especially the main character, whom many critics love to hate.
(Note to readers: I think I can commit to ending the story in six more installments, bringing the total number to 50.)

I'm always composing a blog post in my head, but due to time constraints and inertia, very few of them are written and then posted. My spiritual life is always a work in progress, so putting my thoughts and meditations and reflections into written, archival form helps me to give context to my current efforts and failures, which are generally my past efforts and failures made new as I grow, change, mature, and regress.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

I don't write to fit into a genre specifically, but I prefer to write stories that are driven by the moral choices characters make, as opposed to grand spectacles of action or plots that advance through the intricate working-out of magical systems or ethereal poetic scenarios. I am not especially lyrical, and I don't believe (though I've not tried) that I could plot out a mystery. I have a background in theater, and that helps me to approach scenes and stories in terms of motivations and movements: the way that the actions of one character cause another character to change, and the way that physical action often expresses the truth of a scene more clearly than speech.

We are unusual in our blogging, being a husband-and-wife team. Our blog is simply an expression of what interests and compels us at any given moment. It's not a platform for personal promotion; it's not an advertisement for a business; it's not a springboard into the cult of personality. Our readership is not immaterial to us -- far from it; we write mainly to start conversations with friends -- but we don't care if we have ten readers or a thousand as long as those readers are willing to engage with us honestly and intelligently.

I don't write a Catholic "mommy-blog", not because I think that being a mother or a woman or Catholic is unimportant, but come on: I'm on my sixth child. I just do this stuff now. Sometimes it's funny and profound, and other times it's not. Every child and every smile and every poop blowout is unique, but at the end of the day, sometimes I just want to write about something else, because motherhood is not the entirety of my person. And sometimes I do want to write about these things, because they are a vital part of who I am.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Because it interests me, and through writing about what interests me I find other people who share the same interests. I have come to enjoy writing much more than I ever thought I would; I would almost describe myself as a writer now; but in general my writing is subordinate to the personal connections it fosters. Even if no one comments on a post, it comforts me to know that my friends are reflecting with me on the same topics, and weaving chains of ideas from a thread I've tossed out. And then, when we meet up, we've laid the groundwork of conversation.

Writing for the blog, I tend to approach topics from a personal angle. I love reading impartial, objective writing, but historically that has not been my style. I try not to distort my personality in my writing and I try not to write with more anger or snark or hysteria than I need to, and I hope that anyone meeting me in person after reading me can build a friendship on the consistency between word and presence. Every now and then it does give me pause that because I have nine years' worth of easily accessible personal archives, so many people know much more about me than I do about them, but then, that is the nature of writing for a public platform.

4. How does your writing process work?

I was fascinated to read Betty's description of her process because it's very much the opposite of mine. I rarely make notes for future posts, and most of my scintillating insights pass forgotten without ever being recorded. Much of what I write, whether fiction or blog post, is usually pounded out in one sitting. I like to edit and revise, but I often do it immediately after writing. Oddly enough, I find it very difficult to write with pen and paper. I'm a great devotee of the delete key and the ability to instantly change and hone and see changes reflected right away in the structure of a piece. I haven't kept a journal since I was 17, and although I love the concept of the tactile experience of pen and ink and notebooks made from sustainable cardboard and aspirational paper, those things end up unused in a drawer. Maybe if I had a fountain pen with a great nib it would be different...

Since I started writing fiction as part of NaNoWriMo, my writing process is based around several hours of procrastinating while gathering thoughts followed by a few early AM hours of flow. Even the sections I start writing line by painful line in scheduled sessions at reasonable times don't take off until I'm sipping bourbon at 1 AM. We use Scrivener as a writing program, but I severely underutilize all its many fine features because they aren't conducive to the way I plot and characterize a story. One reason that I don't develop my work in written notes is that Darwin and I spend a lot of time hashing out our stories through conversation. Even when I have notes to consult, they're generally records of conversations such as email chains with friends helping me work out details.


I agree wholeheartedly with Duffy's Laws:
If I’m writing about a personal problem, dilemma, weakness, mishap, or stupid thing I did or thought–I always wait to publish until the moment has past, I’ve figured myself out, and all the emotions associated with the problem have dissipated. Sometimes it takes days, sometimes a few minutes. 
I never, ever publish under the influence of rage or confusion. Sometimes I let a thing written in the moment stand for publication–but only when I can view it objectively as an editor, even if it doesn’t read objectively. 
If I’m tempted to write about someone else’s problem, dilemma, weakness, mishap or stupid thing they did or said, I overcome the temptation. Failing that, I get permission to write it from the person in question. Failing that, I disguise the person beyond recognition. 
I’ve broken these laws in the past, and it never ends well for anyone.

And my kids are reminding me that most of writing time is stolen from them personally.


Though I'd been blogging for a number of years before I went back to writing any fiction, I always thought of "writing" as writing fiction, or some kind of "real" non-fiction like a book or at least a published article. Nonetheless, I'll follow MrsDarwin's lead and answer on both types of writing.

1. What are you working on?

I keep a sort of mental circular file which typically has 3-5 potential posts in it. About half of these ever get written, as the rest age out until I decide they aren't relevant anymore. One of my difficulties having blogged so long is that it's a fairly fleeting medium, and yet although my memory is often very scattered on other things I have a very immediate memory of most things I've written. Thus, I'll often think of a topic, "But I've already written about that." And since I don't like to repeat myself, once I've said my piece on a topic I tend to leave it alone unless some new angle occurs to me. As such, I often find myself thinking that I've run out of things to say and should fold up shop. However, since I've been feeling like this off and on for the last seven out of nine years of blogging, I figure it's a sort of chronic thing and best ignored.

My first novel since I started writing again was a fairly incidental, small-scale piece, though I would like to go back and revise it into finished form at some point, if only because it was a lot of fun to write about the kind of office milieu in which I spend my days. The project that's had me busy with research and outlining for the last year and a half, however, is one that I'd been thinking about on the back burner for a number of years: a large scale historical novel about World War One. It's a period which has increasingly fascinated me over the years, and the more I read about it, the more I become convinced that far too much fiction about the Great War (particularly in English) has become clustered around a couple of rather simplistic tropes. One of the ways I'm seeking to get away from that is by focusing almost exclusively on the continental Great Powers in my story and not having any British or American main characters.

What was meant to be a novel seems to have developed into three volumes. I'm currently nearing the end of a rather shockingly long chapter-by-chapter outline of the first volume. If all goes according to plan I'll start writing actual draft soon here and start publishing chapters on the blog in August, the 100th anniversary of the war. Here's my back cover style summary of the first volume:

The Great War, A Novel

Vol One: Things Fall Apart

In the last six months of 1914, four sets of characters experience the disruption of their peacetime lives as the Great War engulfs Europe.

Henri and Philomene have a quiet family life in a village in northern France. Philomene is looking forward to the end, next year, of Captain Henri’s years as an active reserve officer, while Henri misses the military career he gave up in favor of family life. The outbreak of the war summons Henri back to active duty, then separates them as German troops occupy northern France, leaving both to face new difficulties while desperate for news of each other.

Walter is a young metalworker torn between solidarity with his fellow workers, who are struggling to organize, in a Berlin bicycle factory and the lure of an offer to become a foreman. Called up into the army during the war’s first days, he finds a new solidarity in uniform.

Raised in a convent school for “natural daughters” of gentlemen, Natalie is sent to work as governess to a celebrated surgeon’s family in Kiev. At first welcomed into the family, she becomes the target of the affections of the cavalry officer eldest son. Seeking to escape her predicament, she finds new purpose working as a nurse in a Russian field hospital.

Jozef feels trapped by his mother’s ambitions for him to make a career in the Austro-Hungarian civil service. He expects adventure and independence in joining the cavalry at the outbreak of war.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

There are fairly few couple-written blogs that I'm aware of, so I guess that's a bit of a distinction. Also, the mix of topics we write about is driven very much by our interests rather than sticking to a single theme, and since those vary and have varied over time, I like to flatter myself that the mix of topics here is moderately different from many other blogs.

In regards to the in-progress novel: The non Anglo-centric setting is different from a lot of other WW1 novels. That, however, is mostly a tool to allow me to do what I think a good historical novel should do, which is to take a period as its denizens saw it. Because our view of the Great War has been so heavily influenced by some very good anti-war writers from the 30s and 60s, I think that the war has to a great extent come to be used as a literary trope for futility while the second world war has become the stand in for a "war of good against evil". I think that approach to writing about the war is fundamentally uninteresting because it's not human.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I enjoy discussing the topics I write about, but people who also enjoy talking about them are moderately thin on the ground, so writing to a worldwide audience allows us a reach a sort of critical conversational mass. Also, I think that some contentious topics (religion, politics, etc.) are easier to discuss through the formalism and distance of the written word rather than in person.

In regards to fiction... I'm less sure how to answer that question. At root, I find people interesting, and I find how people have lived in different and difficult times interesting. There's also an element of simply writing (or at least trying to write) the kind of thing that I would like to read.

4. How does your writing process work?

My blogging process is pretty straight forward: I have something or other that occurs to me (or more often bothers me, since a lot of posts originate in some sort of critique or disagreement) and I mentally pick at it for a while. Often I end up discussing it with MrsDarwin and figuring out exactly what my thinking on the matter is. Then I find a free hour (often over lunch at work) and bang out a post. I almost never revise or even proofread my blog posts, which I fear is all too evident.

The main similarity in my fiction-writing process is that discussion is very helpful to me. Luckily we both enjoy talking about each other's work and coming up with plot and character ideas, because otherwise I think MrsDarwin would scream whenever she heard me say, "I was thinking about the novel and..." There's a lot that I figure out by talking it through, and then there are other things that I think of while reading some research or when something else triggers a thought, and I try to note things like that down immediately (either in one of my project notebooks or in one of the GoogleDocs that I keep notes and snippets in) so that I won't forget.

On the previous novel project, I had a very rough idea in my head of the structure and plot, and as I went along I'd put down a quick bullet-pointed list of what would go on in each section or chapter so that I'd know where I was going. With the current project, the complexity of having five mostly separate storylines and including huge amounts of research is such that I knew I needed to be a lot more organized, so I've been writing a very detailed outline. To make it feel different from writing prose, I've been writing it in the present tense, which seems to feel oddly right. But I try to make that as detailed as possible, even including some dialog, so that when I go back to write the actual prose I can be focused on character development and description and won't be having to figure out what will happen in each scene on the fly.

For actually writing prose (or even outline, I'm finding) I need a long period of time to write without interruption. I can't get much of anything done on a short period like a lunch break. So my fiction writing is almost exclusively done at night. The first couple hours I have very slow progress and keep breaking off to read research or check Facebook or generally waste time. Then as it gets later (often not till everyone else is asleep) things finally start to click and I'm able to be very productive.

I'm trying to learn to be better about revision. I may re-write a bit as I go along, but aside from basic proof reading and a tiny bit of phrase polishing, once I've written something I find it hard to imagine it being different than it is, unless I'm able to let it rest for a long time and then come back to it fresh. It reads too much to me like how I meant it to be rather than how it is. Thus if something isn't quite working, I generally have to ditch the whole scene and try to do it over, because I'm not good at crafting my existing prose. This is definitely one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer and it's something that I'm trying to correct.


We'd like to tag Literacy-Chic and Brandon, but everyone's invited to play along.

Monday, May 12, 2014

When I Am Lifted Up, I Draw All Men to Me

We had an eventful weekend here, what with a first communion and a birthday on the same day. I'm the mother of a 12-year-old now, which means that next year I'll have a teenager. I would like to sit for a bit and have a memento mori moment with a skull, but if we had a skull it would have been appropriated by one of the kids by now.

While we were absorbed in family concerns, the rest of the American Catholic world was focused on the accounts that some satanists are holding a black mass at Harvard through the Harvard Extension Society. This is a loathsome publicity stunt, and even though the group claims they will not be using a consecrated host, it is an action so vicious and hostile that even the most committed atheist should find reasons to oppose it on cultural and humanitarian fronts. Elizabeth Scalia has been doing fine investigative reporting on the debacle; do read her reports.

Harvard refuses to shut down the event, in the name of free speech, but I was fascinated by President Drew Faust's statement:

The reenactment of a 'black mass' planned by a student group affiliated with the Harvard Extension School challenges us to reconcile the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university with our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding. Vigorous and open discussion and debate are essential to the pursuit of knowledge, and we must uphold these values even in the face of controversy. Freedom of expression, as Justice Holmes famously said long ago, protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. 
But even as we permit expression of the widest range of ideas, we must also take responsibility for debating and challenging expression with which we profoundly disagree. The 'black mass' had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond. The decision by a student club to sponsor an enactment of this ritual is abhorrent; it represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community. It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory. 
Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs. At the same time, we will vigorously protect the right of others to respond—and to address offensive expression with expression of their own. 
I plan to attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul's Church on our campus on Monday evening in order to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.

President Faust certainly has more agency than she evinces here to shut down events that are "abhorrent" and "deeply regrettable", but that whole discussion aside: I wonder what other event could have caused the president of Harvard to attend a Holy Hour in reparation for offenses against Christ and his Church? The Eucharist has power; you do not enter the divine presence without being affected. Those who hold a black mass and mock the Eucharist do so at the peril of their souls, because opening yourself to demonic influence, even in jest, even in disbelief, has consequences. And those who attend adoration do so in peril of their own souls, because opening yourself up to the idea of reparations, to the possibility that an offense has been committed against the presence of God, even as a PR stunt, has consequences, because the reparations are for our sake. Make no mistake, even though the whole point of a black mass is to "get back" at God in some way, to hold him in contempt with impunity, we are incapable of hurting God.

Let me say it again: we are incapable of hurting God. God is Love -- not just loving, not just full of love. He is Love itself. He is not just joyful, He is Joy. No human agency, no sacrilege, no desecration, no humiliation, no vile torture, no crucifixion can steal the slightest particle of God's divine Joy. No one can gain an iota of power over God. If Satan has no power over God, how much less do any humans doing anything in Satan's name.

But humans can hurt themselves and other humans, which is why we who believe God throw ourselves on His mercy and implore it for others. God permits free will, and He believes in it more strongly than we do, it seems: He will let us fully experience the consequences of our actions and our beliefs. That is why we do reparation for offenses against Him, even if He can't be offended. That is why we don't respond to violations of the Eucharist with violence but with prayer. Jesus, who gave his back to those who beat him and his cheeks to those who plucked his beard, isn't defenseless. He can take any abuse heaped on Him. He adopts the helplessness of the weakest in order to give each person a chance to respond freely to Him.

There's plenty of discussion to be had about the extents of academic inquiry and freedom of speech and sheer hypocrisy in regards to Harvard's role in hosting this despicable event, but I think that the promoters of the black mass are going to find a lot more spiritual consequences than they bargained for. "And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself," Jesus said (John 12:32). Lifted up in adoration, lifted up in desecration: He draws each one, and each one must respond. Dear God, please soften all the hardened hearts you draw to yourself, including mine.

Kasper's Remarks on 50% of Marriages Being Invalid

What with family commitments and visits (my family was out for the last few days for Isabel's first communion) I haven't had time to write, even though there are several substantive topics that have been on the back burner. One recent post that I wish I had time to write more about is Brandon's over at Siris dealing with Cardinal Kasper's recent interview in which the cardinal said that during private conversations with Pope Francis, the pope had observed that given modern errors at to the nature of marriage perhaps fifty percent of marriages are invalid.

Brandon says:
Cardinal Kasper has a longstanding habit of saying things very confidently on grounds that are not obviously adequate for the confidence, but I think it needs to be pointed out that if the Cardinal is right, doing "much more in prematrimonial catechesis" and using "pastoral work" is simply not going to cut it. The level of failure he is suggesting is so extreme that it could not possibly have come about without extraordinary and culpable negligence on the part of bishops and priests. Bishops and priests exist for the purpose of maintaining and protecting the sacramental order; what Cardinal Kasper is claiming is that they have failed on such a scale that it amounts to an outright betrayal of the laity and could reasonably be said to cry out for serious public penance on the part of bishops and priests who are guilty of letting the situation deteriorate to such an astounding degree.

In any case, as Ed Peters has noted, it is an extraordinarily irresponsible thing to toss out in a public interview as if it were a serious assessment: sacramental validity is not a trivial matter, and if you are going to make a statement like this in public, as opposed to just a private conversation, you had better be doing so on the basis of rigorously established principles and you had better be offering a considerable sight more than vague suggestions about catechesis as your solution.
I'm very much in agreement with Brandon's thoughts in the matter.

Too often, it strikes me that Catholic thought on marriage and divorce these days seems a bit like Julia Flyte's in Brideshead Revisited, when on surveying her marriage prospects she considers it terribly unfair that her fellow debutants who are members of the Church of England can marry older sons and not worry about the embarrassments of a "mixed marriage". People seem to see the permanence of Catholic marriage as some sort of an awkward sectarian quirk, which it would be best to find some sort of technical excuse for getting around in most cases.

What this misses is that the Catholic understanding is not simply that marriage is permanent of contracted between two Catholics who are sufficiently devoted to a Catholic notion of marriage. Rather, the Church (following Christ's lead) sees marriage as permanent by nature. That's why if someone wishes to come into the Church and have their current marriage blessed, but was in the past divorced and remarried, the old marriage must be examined to see if it is even possible to bless the current one. The Church assumes that non-Catholics' marriages are permanent by nature too. If the Church holds that non-Catholic marriages are by nature permanent, people need to be cautious about suggesting that most Catholic marriages are invalid because those entering on marriage were insufficiently catechized Catholics. That's only a step away from saying that marriage is not in fact permanent by nature.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Separated by War

I was deeply charmed by this story, perhaps in part because it is so small scale. In the summer of 1914, William and Marta Pattison, residents of Middlesbrough, found themselves divided by world events. Marta had gone on summer holiday to visit her family in Germany, taking their two children Frida and Renee with her. William was to go join them for his two weeks vacation from his job as an office clerk at the Cleveland Salt Company. Instead, the Great War intervened and they found themselves caught on opposite sides of the lines.

The couple's granddaughter, Barbara Bishop, has now made available selections from the diaries that both of them kept during their separation.
WILLIAM: July 31 Received a letter and newspaper from Marta saying that war rumours were in the air....At the end of the letter, Marta says: 'I wish I was at home and all this horrid war up in the moon. It is spoiling my holiday because one gets quite nervous.'

This made me fearfully uneasy, for I have been relying on their knowing the position better than I did - there was little or no excitement here... That night I sent a telegram to Frankfurt saying they should go at once, with Otto, to Rotterdam, if it was safe to travel and I would go to Rotterdam with them.

MARTA: July 31 Mobilisation is expected hourly. I went therefore to the station to send my husband a telegram. It is too late to get away ourselves, as all trains are being held ready for troop transport.

The station is occupied by troops. I sent the telegram: I STAY PLEASE DO NOT COME. LOVE. And yet, I wish I were with my dear Willy, for I feel dreadful. Everything is in turmoil, I think sometimes I must be dreaming.

It is a terrible state to be in.

WILLIAM: August 1 After an almost sleepless night expecting a reply to my telegram, I was at the office at 8.30 and found the telegram I was expecting....It said: 'I am staying here, please don't come.' So now I don't know whether they will set off or not.

MARTA: August 1: A telegram arrived from my dear husband saying that if it was safe, I should leave at once and he would meet me in Rotterdam. I was naturally very bothered by this [but].. it happened as I had feared, there was no longer any proper rail connection, and Otto was only able to send a telegram - in German - saying: TRAVEL NO LONGER SAFE. MUST SAY HERE.

So the war that I feared has come. All around, there are weeping women and children saying Goodbye to their loved ones. There are many hurried weddings, where the man has to go away.

It is dreadful to go down the streets. Everyone is rushing about, vast numbers of cars, and the soldiers all in new uniforms - everything has a warlike look about it and there is no longer any hope of my [Willy] getting back home soon.

August 3 Renée can now walk very well, and Friedele speaks German very well. If only Willy could see and hear it all. I wish I knew if he is well and if he has the same longing for us as we have for him.

August 4 What a night that was! We now know that we are really at war. I was wakened during the night by continuous gunfire, and Mother, Father and Otto were up too.

And now, the worst of all: England has declared war on Germany! And I am quite cut off from my dear husband and cannot write to him any more. What will become of him?

WILLIAM: August 4 The eventful day. Rumours abroad that Germany has declared war on England. Government have proclaimed a four day Bank Holiday. Banks do not open until Friday - bank rate is 10% - unprecedented!

August 5 Very bad night, and troubled all day with awful thoughts, but glad Marta and the children are with their own people.

MARTA: August 7 The first great victory! Liège has been taken by the Germans. Everyone is rejoicing over the victory, but I had a terrible longing today for my dear one. My postcard came back, but I also got 2 letters from Willy, and of course that raised our homesickness again. If only I knew how he is!

Friedele (Frida) and Renée always kiss his photograph with me.

WILLIAM: August 14 This was to have been the day of my departure to Frankfurt, to spend my fortnight holiday, but alas, there seems to be no immediate prospect.

MARTA: August 14 How often and how many times have I been thinking of my dear Willy today! It was today he was to have set off for here: and I am still having to wait. My poor dear boy, I wonder how much you will be thinking of us.

WILLIAM: August 19 Today is the anniversary of the day we got engaged in 1909 and I have had a terrible day, thinking about them all.

MARTA: August 19 How different today would have been if my dear Willy had been here! It is 5 years today that I promised to be his wife, and what happy times we have spent together since.

WILLIAM: September 1 A paragraph in the papers refers to a possible exchange of women and children between England, Germany and Austria. Wrote at once to the Foreign Office. TWO LETTERS, ONE IN GERMAN, ONE IN ENGLISH, CAME FROM MARTA, OTTO AND FATHER!!.....Rode at once to Pembroke Street with the news.

Mother and Lily wept, and father looks years younger already.

MARTA: September 2 The police came wanting to see my papers today. I wonder what they want?

September 6 I got another letter from my dear husband. This time it came via Norway. It was sweet to see Renee and Friedele kiss it.

In the afternoon I sat there with the letter in my pocket, and Renee came up to me, took it out and said 'Daddy'. Poor little dears, I am sure they miss Daddy as much as I do.

WILLIAM: September 21 Marta's 27th birthday.

September 22 About 50 more Germans from Middlesbrough were taken away for internment at York yesterday, as Middlesbrough has been declared a prohibited area.

October 10 This is a crucial time. We are living in stirring times. My brain seems bewildered with such frequent occurrences and my head always aches.
Their separation turned out to be unexpectedly short. In October William came down with appendicitis and then peritonitis. His life was considered to be in danger and with the help of the Masons it was arranged for Marta to get into neutral Holland and from there back to Britain where she helped nurse William back to health.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Shea, Hargrave and Libertarianism

When I heard that Joe Hargrave and Mark Shea were exchanging broadsides on the topic of libertarianism, I thought that this would be one of those guilty pleasures to read in which two excitable authors go picnicking on one another. What I found was something a bit different.

Mark Shea apparently opened the discussion with a post whose closing I will quote to give a good sense of the tone.
The trick that Catholics influenced by libertarian ideology (aka heresy) need to master is this: instead of ransacking Catholic teaching for the subsidiarity bits that happen to comport with libertarian heresy, instead embrace the fullness of Catholic teaching, including the Church’s teaching on solidarity, the common good, and the legitimate role of the state.

Joe Hargrave replied in Crisis. Here's his closing, for comparison:
All of this is to say that complex economic and ethical issues cannot be resolved by shouting “heresy!” It would be antithetical to the spirit of Catholicism to suggest that anything other than the common good ought to be the ultimate goal of economic policies. It would also be antithetical to the spirit of Catholicism to suggest that there is only one way to promote it, and that all other ways are automatically heretical and forbidden. Libertarianism is only a “heresy” in the same way that every other idea becomes a heresy; when it is taken to irrational extremes or when it explicitly rejects a fundamental teaching of the Church. There is no reason why any self-identified libertarian has to do either.

Shea then took to Facebook to respond and basically repeated himself:
I recognize that there is no libertarian magisterium and that people pick and choose bits that they like--and that lots of people influenced by libertarianism are very nice people and very good Catholics. I also recognize that all they are doing is selecting bits and pieces from Catholic Magisterial teaching and that the more Catholic you become the less Libertarian, while the more Libertarian you become, the more like Murray Rothbard you become. My solution: ditch Libertarian heresy and just stick with the fullness of Catholic teaching.

Shea clearly comes off as the one taking the low road here, while Hargrave writes a reasonable post and wisely resists the urge to follow Shea into accusing everyone he doesn't agree with of being a heretic. Shea's writing has been heading down hill for a long time, but I was nonetheless surprised by the contrast here.

Ramblings on the Nation-State Idea

Joseph Moore has a couple of interesting posts up over at Yard Sale of the Mind dealing with the nation state as a source of identity rather than the local region, city, etc. (First post. Second post.) They're worth reading and I'd recommend them.

I've always found a certain appeal to localist ideas, but it's most certainly not how I lived my life. I grew up in Southern California, lived for seven years in Texas, and now live in a small town outside Columbus, OH, a little over a hundred miles drive from MrsDarwin's family in Cincinnati. There are ways in which my west coast upbringing makes me not fit elsewhere as well, but at this point California feels a bit alien to me as well. So at this point I'm arguably more American than any particular regional designation within it. I really like the small town we live in, but I have to admit I find it hard to get very excited about city and county elections.

I think Joseph Moore is onto something that it is to an extent this breakdown in local ties (both due to heavy participation in the national entertainment culture and due to frequent moves) which results in people identifying more and more with the nation rather than their city or region. Though I'd point out this isn't strictly a city driven phenomenon. One of the big national movements which moved us along the path to a larger and more intrusive national government (and more identification with national politics) was the agrarian progressive movement of the last of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th. William Jennings Byan led a national movement which sought progressive national government policies which would help farmers against monied interests, at a point when farmers tended to see railroad fees and commodity prices as major sources of injustice. (From a Catholic standpoint, this tradition of supporting government running of the economy to protect small agricultural concerns is a something one sees in the social encyclicals.)

Another interesting point is the difference between the US and a lot of the "old world" countries in terms of what the nation is founded on. Joseph Moore says:
In a book that I can’t lay my hands on at the moment (buried in The Pile) on the Paris peace conference, they mention the problem with Wilson’s plebiscite idea: the people in the villages in the disputed areas didn’t think of themselves primarily as members of a nation, but as members of their villages. That they spoke German or Polish or Czech might incline them to identify with other speakers of those languages, but didn’t necessarily mean they thought of themselves first and foremost as members of a nation comprised of speakers of that language. I wonder how the votes (assuming they took place – did they?) would have gone if it had been presented thus:
1. You can vote to be identified primarily with speakers of your language. If speakers of your language win the vote, you get to keep your village, and all speakers of other languages will be driven out, presumably to live among speakers of their languages. If you lose, YOU get driven out and lose everything. You are voting that the interests of villages are second to the interests of nation-states.

2. You can vote to leave things as they are, to hell with some progressive’s desire to divvy up everybody into conveniently managed nation-states. If so, everybody has to be cool with everybody else in the neighborhood, but everybody gets to stay and keep their stuff. You are voting that the interests of nation-states are secondary to the interests of villages.
For various historical reasons, the nation states that formed in Europe were what is most properly referred to as "nation states", states built to provide a country dedicated to a specific "nation" in terms of race, language and culture. This basis in turn created tensions right from the beginning. For instance, Poland as it existed after 1920 had significant minorities of Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews, as well as the ethnic Poles after whom the country was named. These ethnic groups proceeded to be fault lines both in domestic politics and as the country was invaded, occupied, moved, and ethnically cleansed over the following 30 years.

While the US certainly has a degree of shared language and culture, it does not have this ethno-national component to nearly the same degree. But it's also not exactly a classicl supranational empire on the model of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Help Me Out Here

Evern since I was back up on my feet after giving birth, we've had something going every weekend, which I think is unfair since I've purposefully avoided putting my children in organized sports to avoid that very thing. However, this weekend we're happy to be busy: Isabel is making her first communion on Saturday. This is a joyous time, a blessed time, a time of last-minute shoe buying and veil altering and dry cleaning and cake baking. If posting has seemed light (seemed! ha ha!) recently, and continues to seem light, this is why. Please remember Isabel in your prayers on Saturday!

And speaking of food prep: one of our houseguests this weekend has diabetes and needs to eat carefully. We've been to the library today to stock up on Diabetes for Dummies and diabetic cookbooks, but I thought our limited research time would be more productively farmed out to you, o readers. If you are diabetic or make food for someone who is, what would you like to eat, especially if someone else was doing the cooking? Help me out here.


We're coming to the spiritual culmination of our school year with the first communion, and I can say that despite all my scholastic failures this year (and friends, they are legion), the one thing I have done faithfully is Bible study. Every morning (or early afternoon) we read the daily readings and discuss them, trying to see how the Psalm connects to the first reading and pulling out threads of the Gospel reading. Today's main topic: in the first reading from Acts, Stephen's face is like that of an angel. What does the face of an angel look like? They don't even have bodies, so how can they have faces? When angels have appeared elsewhere in the Bible, how are they described? A favorite angel appearance: when the angel rolls the stone away from the tomb and sits on it.

I suppose I ought to write about what we do each day so that I feel like we're really doing things, but frankly, this has been a trying year for us and I'm ashamed of how little study we've gotten through. Once upon a time, I was a confident homeschooler, effective, proud, evangelical. Now I've been doing it for years, and I'm lost. I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. Once upon a time, when I had fewer and younger children, I thought we would be classical homeschoolers. This year, we've unschooled. We've done stuff: schola, organ lessons, embroidery, crochet, interminable dance lessons, baby prep, baby care, baby changing, cooking, Act 3 Scene 2 of As You Like It, a third go-round of Little House in the Big Woods for the small ones who haven't heard it yet. Good stuff, and there's more where that came from. And yet, I can't shake this sneaking feeling that education should involve some academics. We've been weak on the academics this year. Started Latin in the fall: currently on lesson 9 of 30. Not halfway through the spelling books. Haven't read history in weeks. Grammar? Written work? I don't remember the last time. Handwriting? Are you serious?

Math has been more productive, mainly because while I was pregnant we switched to using Khan Academy's free online program, and the kids have clicked with learning math that way. And although I sit with the kids and tutor them, the website does the rest, down to using past results to customizing review mastery challenges. Plus, the kids know instantly if they've gotten something wrong, and there are hints and tutorials and little avatars you change as you rack up points through working. And I don't have to plan it.

Oh, planning. Over Lent I came to the resolution that we need to try something new. I need someone else to do the planning for me. I need a packaged curriculum, in part or in whole. All these years I've resisted running on someone else's schedule, but now I'm running on no one's schedule. And my older ones, at least really need a checklist of What to Do Today: one so that she can just do it and be finished, the other because otherwise she won't do anything at all.

So, now I need recommendations. O readers, what has worked for you? What do you recommend or deprecate? What keeps you accountable? Help me out here.

Friday, May 02, 2014

George RR Martin critiques Tolkien on War

Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin gave a lengthy Rolling Stone interview recently, in which, among other things, he had a few things to say about Tolkien's writing. I suppose if you're a fabulously best-selling fantasy author with double R middle initials,you can't help imagining that you need to address the comparison, but the particular distinctions which Martin tried to draw struck me as kind of interesting.

Martin's books focus heavily on war, power and violence, and he describes the development of his own thinking on the matter:
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn't a complete pacifist; I couldn't claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status in full belief that I would be rejected, and that I would have a further decision to make: Army, jail or Canada. I don't know what I would've done. Those were desperately hard decisions, and every kid had to make them for himself. To my surprise, they gave me the status. I was later told – I have no way to prove this – that I was granted the status because our conservative draft board felt that anyone who applied for CO status should be granted it, because that would be punishment enough: Then it would be part of their permanent record, and everybody would know that they were a Commie sympathizer, and it would ruin their lives.
We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, "We're just soldiers in their armies, and there's plenty more to carry on if we go down."

It's true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. "Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France." One of the central questions in the book is Varys' riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn't the swordsman have the power? He's the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he's just the average grunt. If he doesn't do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn't Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That's one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What's all this based on? It's all based on an illusion: You go because you're afraid of what will happen if you don't go, even if you don't believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It's all this strange illusion, isn't it?

You're a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?

The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that's become the template. I'm not sure that it's a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, "What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?"

There's only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you're Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes. That's something that's very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We're all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he'd been able to achieve it, we'd be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, "This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war." He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don't cancel out the other. You can't make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we're all both.

A couple things strike me about Martin's comments here.

First of all, he characterizes Tolkien was writing about "a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity" and compares that to a rather comic-book-ish view of World War II (you know, that morally black and what war in which we were forced to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler, and provided support to Mao while working to defeat Japan.) Martin says elsewhere in the interview that he doesn't believe in God, and so perhaps he fails to notice that Tolkien is not writing about a ripped-from-the-pages-of-history kind of war. Tolkien is writing mythology. Mythology is not just about nations, or even about heroes, but about divine forces and the purpose and nature of the world. Sauron is not a ruler from a rival dynasty. He's a fallen Maiar, in the equivalent in Tolkien's world of a fallen angel. So if Sauron's evil seems more unmixed than that of the kind of the players in the sort of human dynastic struggles that Martin writes about, that's because Tolkien is writing about a kind of struggle and a kind of reality which Martin does not believe exists.

We do see, in Tolkien's world, more human conflicts. And those conflicts look a lot more like the analogs from our own history we might pick. The Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King is a much more human conflict (though Saruman, another Maiar who has fallen more recently) is at the back of it.

But while I think it's incorrect to describe the War of the Ring as a struggle of "good against evil", it is certainly a struggle of people against evil, and that's because Tolkien is writing about a world in which an angelic being who is utterly fallen is something which can exist -- while I'm not clear from the interview that Martin is even clear on the difference. It's almost as if he is colorblind to the divine realm. He is thus off-base in arguing that the War of the Ring is not like the majority of historical wars in that it is "a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity". The truth is further: The War of the Ring is a conflict unlike any historical war "in our world" in that it is a conflict directly between men (and elves, dwarves and in their small way hobbits) and men and creatures led by what we would in our religious terminology call a demon. It's different not just in degree but in kind from the kind of historical wars that we are familiar with. This is what makes Tolkien's work mythology and fantasy -- not just an imaginary historical account with some imaginary creatures thrown in.
Lt. Tolkien in 1916
The other thing that struck me is a certain disconnection and attendant smugness in how Martin assesses Tolkien's understanding of war and history. Martin sees World War II, which took place before he was born, as a sort of black and while war for the preservation of civilization, and other wars such as World War I and the Vietnam War as being much more composed of shades of gray. Martin thinks he knows a bit about the moral shades relating to the Great War, but of course, Tolkien knew a bit about the Great War himself. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant Tolkien in 1915 and fought in the Battle of the Somme, Britain's bloodiest battle in history. In his preface to Lord of the Rings, responding to suggestions that the novel was an allegory for World War II, Tolkien wrote:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
And of course, Tolkien was also living in Britain during the Battle of Britain during the second world war, and was in close touch with his sons who served in that war.

I'd submit that Tolkien thus knew a good deal more about the realities and ambiguities of both world wars than Martin does. Tolkien and Lewis are sometimes accused of having romanticized or unrealistic ideas about war. I'm not sure exactly how one comes up with that accusation about men who had, as a major formative experience, the surreal hell of the Great War's battlefields.
Filing for conscientious objector status during Vietnam was doubtless a formative experience for Martin as well -- but one can hardly argue that it offered him the harrowing and personal view of war that Tolkien experienced. Sometimes distance and ambiguity are not so much a proof that one has a deeper understanding of a topic as that the subject has a certain theoretical nature to the speaker. I think it's arguably that Tolkien's experiences caused him to think deeply about the struggle of mortals against a more than mortal evil -- while Martin's lack of direct experience makes him more eager to wallow in the cruelties and ambiguities of explicitly portrayed dynastic conflict.

UPDATE: I'm pulling this up from the comments because I think it's so important and I wish that I'd said it explicitly as well. Brandon of Siris says:
One of the things I think is often overlooked about Tolkien's story is that it's entirely about a kind of struggle with evil that victory in war cannot end. There's a sense in which nobody is warring with Sauron, because war with Sauron is a war that only Sauron could win -- and even, should all odds be defied and Sauron beaten, it would just set up a Sauron-substitute and start everything over again. Nothing about the war itself even comes close to unsettling Sauron's position, and everything in the actual wars is really defensive maneuver in the face of aggression from Sauron's pawns. And this is, as you say, because the struggle with Sauron isn't a war in our sense at all: the closest analogue is not any human war but the struggle against evil throughout all human life.
This is very, very key. Sauron is the lord of the rings, not the lord of the orcs or the armies -- though he has orcs and armies in his service -- and the core story of LotR is about the quest to destroy the ring (and avoid being mastered by it.) The war of the ring is very much a side show, even if it does become the center of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations.